What a ride Ashleigh Walters takes us on as she details the amazing journey she's been able to lead as President of Onex in Erie, PA. When she took the reigns the company had lost its family centric values and she recognized that to succeed in the future change was needed. It was her approach to leading change that makes her a phenomenal leader. The core of the change was establishing a culture that embraced the freedom to fail. By empowering the team to think outside the box the tide started to make a shift in the right direction.
Ashleigh unpacks servant leadership and what that means to her. Her PB&J sandwich analogy is a great way to explain the concept and meeting people wherever they are is the key. She embraces a coaching methodology and how that shift from traditional manufacturing management style is key to growth. The days of command and control is over and by utilizing a coaching strategy she was able to make a significant shift in company culture which has led to amazing results.
This idea episode is chocked full of wisdom and insight that has a real world example backing it the entire way. Onex is now employee owned and their culture is something manufacturers dream about. As Ashleigh so eloquently likes to say, it's all about grit, determination, resilience and persistence but then remember to lead with grace which embraces empathy and compassion. This is an extremely powerful and inspiring conversation that you do not want to miss.
Guest: Ashleigh Walters - President of Onex
Host: Chris Grainger
Executive Producer: Adam Sheets
Podcast Editor: Andi Thrower
Leading with Grit and Grace: A Journey in Organizational Culture Change
For me, the why is manufacturing has been known as command and control since the industrial revolution and the leaders have been tasked with thinking of every possible task for everyone in the company, but for me, that doesn't feel good. It feels better to have people create their own success and play to their own strengths. So I think we need to turn this around and take a coach approach. The other important part of this is, there's not a huge workforce. We don't have a growing population right now and manufacturers are going to have to compete with other industries for personnel. And you need to think about why somebody would come to work for you and your company and do the things that are important to you. So for me, it's all about grit, determination, resilience, and persistence, but then leading with grace as well, that empathy and compassion piece that historically we may have missed on as manufacturers.
Welcome to EECO Asks Why a podcast that dives into industrial manufacturing topics, spotlights the heroes that keep America running. I'm your host, Chris Grainger. And on this podcast, we do not cover the latest features and benefits on products that come to market, instead, we focus on advice and insight from the top minds of industry because people and ideas will be how America remains number one in manufacturing in the world.
Welcome to EECO Asks Why today, we have an idea episode, and I'm very excited for this one. We're talking about leading with grit and grace, and it's about a journey of organizational culture change. And to walk through this conversation, we have the author of Leading with Grit and Grace, and also the president of Onex. Ms. Ashleigh Walters.
Hey Ashleigh, how are you?
Great. Thanks so much for having me, Chris.
And when we met for the first time, I just, it was an instant connection. I loved your story. And you told me about your book and I think I ordered it while we were talking together, actually, and it came in and my wife said your books here. And I remember just sitting down and I just couldn't stop is basically read it from cover to cover. Thought it was such an amazing story and love, all the areas that you covered. So very excited for our listeners here and maybe get us started talking about the why, it is EECO Asks Why. So we usually end with the why and maybe start us off with the why just like you did in a book, why is, getting your why's defined so important to get that journey started?
It is. I will tell you, it took us a little while to get that why defined. As you read the book, yes that's the first step and it is a very important one, but don't worry if you don't get it right, just out of the gate. It took us about seven years and what happened with the company as we lost our why. We lost our family-centric values.
And it took us a little while to come back to that. So in the book I tell you, we wrote that first, why it was about quality and safety. Those are things that we're supposed to do as manufacturers. That's not our why, so we came to make things better, empowered employees, happy clients, and thriving communities, and that why gives us our energy. And when things are going a little sideways on us, or, the world seems a little topsy-turvy, we go back to that why and find our passion and are able to move forward.
For sure. For sure. And for the listeners who may not know, Ashleigh, what about Onex? What do you guys do there?
So Onex has been in business for over 50 years now here in Erie, Pennsylvania, and we service and build industrial furnaces. So think about all your forge and heat A lot of defense and aerospace type work.
All right. Good stuff. So once you had that why defined and it sounded like it took you guys to get aligned on that. And it's no surprise there, then you have to start embracing change. So what suggestions or advice would you have there?
When you think about change, a lot of people say there's a fear of change or a change is hard, but change doesn't have to be hard. It can be fun too. If you think of it as a growing experience, it becomes a whole lot more fun. You're checking off things on the list on your journey and just remember to celebrate all the successes along the way that makes that change even more fun.
Typically I don't think of fun when I think of change. That's a good way to put it. I was thinking back to my old shop days when everything, whenever I tried to change something on the shop floor I was usually, having to watch my back when I went to the Good stuff. So, I mean, when change doesn't end with the outcome that you desire. What advice would you have for those people out there who may be in a leadership role to build that culture where it's okay to fail? So any thoughts there on what you guys did?
Yeah. So one of the most popular chapters in the book is called freedom to fail. And it was also a very popular blog post when I posted originally on LinkedIn. And went on to expand the idea and the book, when you think of failure, sometimes people think of risk. We're making industrial furnaces here. I'm not allowing my people to fail and making an industrial furnace. What we're talking about is problem-solving. So we are choosing a journey, a path, and we're trying to tackle a problem. And in that we experiment with ways that we think that we can get better.
And those experiments aren't always successful, but with each iteration, we are learning from the experiment. So we're writing down what the outcome we expect to be, and then what the actual outcome was and talking about why we didn't achieve the expected outcome and then trying again. We were failing and we're failing fast and trying to be innovative in all that we're doing.
Chris: 05:52 And then, so who's involved in all that so far is empowering them in solving the problems. Is that everybody who works at the company?
Ashleigh: 06:01 So I always say continuous improvement and problem-solving goes from the CEO to the plant floor. It's on all of us every day to make things right to improve what we're doing and with that greater mission and mind that we're improving ourselves so that we can be better for our clients, but we're also most of what we do is in a plant and a client site. And so I also ask our personnel, if you're fixing the same problem over and over for a client, let's talk about how we can make it better for them too, because we feel it's very important to have manufacturing in our small town USA. So we want to make sure there that we're making them better, too.
Chris: 06:41 It was like, you've built a culture where I love how you say it's okay to fail, but it's embracing that experimentation where that is expected. It sounds like it's expected somewhat of the employees to, to experiment and to try things to get better.
Ashleigh: 06:57 Yes, absolutely. It's an expectation to be continuously improving.
Chris: 07:03 That's awesome. How long did it take to really start getting some buy-in on that to, Hey, this is really good. I'm not going to get in trouble if I step out here.
Ashleigh: 07:13 So it took a little while to get buy-in. We had a CFO that had managed the company, very command and control. Had siloed everybody, would berate people in front of others. So when I came in as general manager, you can imagine that people didn't trust me.
They didn't know how I was going to react. And they had been beaten by the previous CFO. And they were a little downtrodden. So what I did was I just went and I started asking curious questions. So I went to the people closest to the work, and I said, what frustrates you? What takes up the most time? What tasks do you just wish would go away? And they would tell me, and I would say, okay, let's get rid of it. Let's figure it out. Let's solve it. And so as we started solving problems together, that's how I built trust and rapport with the team.
Chris: 08:08 Okay. That's wonderful. So just start basic with the asking questions and I guess.
The fact that they recognize that you're asking, but you're actually listening, first of all, to what they're saying. And then you're taking action based off of those questions. I'm sure that did build some trust pretty quickly.
And you nailed it exactly right. Chris, you have to take action and you have to take action quickly. Otherwise, they won't continue to give you ideas and help you solve the problem. In one instance, so we do a lot in aerospace. And so one of the ideas that come to me was to change a process and we can't change anything about how we do anything in aerospace. My response was, thank you so much for that idea, here's why we can't make that change, but keep thinking, you know, so make sure you respond, whether you can make the change or not or, you know, if it's a capital expenditure and it's going to take a little longer to get approval, just continue to communicate that you're working through that process.
Great stuff. Thank you so much. And for the listeners out there, the book we'll have the link there cause I'm walking right through the book with Ashleigh and the chapter that got me was servant leadership. That's for me personally that's something I really try to live out every day and serve others. And so when I saw that in Grit and Grace, I was like, Ooh, this is going to be the one for me right here. So maybe explain to those listeners that. What's your definition of servant leadership is and I really liked how you referenced, how you could see that style and others. So any thoughts there?
Yeah. So to me, servant leadership just means meeting people where they are. Your job as a leader is to help people grow. Think of yourself as a coach. Great teams have good coaches and your job as a leader is to help somebody in removing obstacles for them and making sure that they're playing to their strengths.
So I use the example in the book of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and I have the teams write instructions on how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And you would think this is a really easy task, right? Like how hard can it possibly be? But then I'd take those directions very literally. And I want to let everybody know that people are coming from a different history and a different perspective. And so Chris, where you might put peanut butter on the right-hand side and jelly on the left, maybe I put peanut butter and jelly on the same piece of bread. So this starts out the conversation.
They learn pretty quickly when I'm taking the jar of peanut butter and setting it on top of the bag of bread that they're going to have to be more specific with their instructions, and it's really hard to write job instructions. So sometimes it's just easier to meet the person where they are and to work right alongside them.
For sure. I mean that, that analogy I did, it definitely stood out. So any, when you're doing that with, I guess maybe new employees, is that an eye-opening moment?
I did, it was my production floor manager. And at first he said I was a jerk. And then he's like, I get it though. He said, I can't just tell them. I said, when the outcome, isn't what you were expecting, you need to really think about what it is you said to them because their history and perspective makes them hear it differently than how you are saying it. So go show them that takes the confusion out of it for everybody.
But I guess, to meet them where they are, that kind of goes back to what you were saying earlier about asking questions. You really can't know where someone is. If you don't have that culture and that acceptance to be inquisitive and to really know where they are you, cause a lot of problems do happen when you make those assumptions.
Right. You can, you can think, you know where someone is too, but if you don't go and ask the questions and listen to the answers then you aren't going to be meeting them where they are.
That's right. Yeah. And then on servant leadership. You were talking about coaching and that was a big theme that I call, throughout the book of coaching. And I love that mentality of coaching others and helping them to grow. So any suggestion for leaders out there and maybe you to Ashleigh on, how they can start creating that, that personal coaching approach in their own styles?
So back to manufacturing and our history with a command and control leadership style. My thought on this is nobody likes to be told what to do. And if you're telling them what to do, they're only going to do what they're told to do. They're not going to think outside the box. So with the coach approach, you're really setting it up and you're telling somebody, okay, this is where I see us going in the future and allowing them the opportunity to figure out their own roadmap to get there.
And it's so much more fulfilling to get to the goal by your own way than to be told every step to take. And the coaches there, as a guide along the way, once again, we're helping remove obstacles where I'm helping somebody see their blind spots, but we're doing it with a front, like looking out the front mirror. We're not looking in the rearview like we do with annual reviews. I share in the book that I had a very poor annual review and I'm an overachiever. Like I want to be the best at everything I'm doing. And that review sat really poorly with me because I'd been told to write a manufacturing plan, but what I'd really done was identify the problem and move the entire manufacturing operation, but I hadn't written a plan, so I got the end result done, but I didn't take the path that I was told to take. And that's when I decided that an annual review process wasn't right for us. We were so agile and we have to move so quickly that I didn't want to be looking in the rearview mirror.
So who are the coaches? Is it across the board?
So we have you know, the leadership team, are our coaches but we also have peer coaches. So when somebody is working, we do a lot of like cross collaboration. We found pretty early on in the journey that if we weren't asking the people in front of us on the task and the people behind us on the task that we would get things really messed up really quickly. So we do a lot of cross collaboration as well.
Okay, do you coach the coaches for say, do they go to training for this to learn some coaching styles and techniques?
We did. We started out 2020 with a coaching class, just setting the stage for this new approach because it was 2019 when I decided we were no longer going to do the annual review. So 2020, as you can imagine, got off to a little rougher start than we had expected, but we did set the stage with the coach approach. And then we're able to continue our journey in June of 2020 with additional training. While it's not an incredibly formal process here, we're not documenting every time we meet with somebody, but we're making sure we have those conversations in those coachable moments. So, I don't think you can say well, Tuesday at 10:30 is going to be a coachable moment, right?
It seems like though you're being intentional about really trying to build them up to think differently to act differently as a coach. And that ultimately is going to make such a huge impact on your business.
Yeah. We're pointing out like when things are going astray, but we also talking about when things are going really well and noticing the changes that are being made.
Well, I mean, hats off to you. I loved it. I thought the coaching was wonderful. And, as I moved through the book that you were talking also about sometimes even, I guess even when your coach there isn't alignment with people, and sometimes there's not alignment with your overall mission statement. You talked about identifying key objectives and KPIs to really align to the mission. Any advice out there for businesses moving forward to try to get those metrics right or evaluate, Hey, that we're chasing the right stuff, that our people know what's important and how they're impacting that?
Ashleigh: 16:06 So my advice on KPIs is don't dig too deep. Don't get too granular with KPIs because you'll find what you are measuring gets moved around. It's how people win a game. So we keep it very high level. We're looking at financials and quality and on-time delivery and safety, the very top of the KPI funnel let's call it, but what I do that is probably different is I choose one wildly important goal for the organization for the year. And when I say I choose, it's not just me choosing it's what we need to focus on as the organization, what's most important. And I talk about how we always talk about our priorities.
Well, priority was only meant to be singular. You may only have one priority. And so that's what we call our wildly important goal. And then what I ask is each leader for their department chooses the battle that they're going to fight to help us win the war, to help us get to that goal. And then they ask their personnel to choose their battle. And that's how we cascade a goal through the organization. It's not me as the leader, choosing the goal for every single person through the organization. It's the ones closest to the work that are choosing their goal, that they know that they can achieve. And then they hold themselves accountable for it. That was their goal, not mine.
Chris: 17:30 Do they typically align up? Cause you mentioned cascading goals and I love it. So do their goals align up to your wildly important goal? Is that typically what you said?
Ashleigh: 17:40 Okay. Yeah, they definitely do. So we, this year, because we're an employee-owned company, our goal was to increase our earnings per share. That's important to them now that they're an owner, right? And so we have had a lot of education around, how do you affect the earnings per share? What can you do to help minimize costs or increase sales or whatever it is in your department, in your world that you can do? So for instance, our draftsman, his KPI, his battle that he was going to fight was that he was going to make assemblies for different parts of the furnace. And that way he could plug it in assembly and not have to draw each component each time. And so he's made an assembly library, but I would have never have known to tell him to do that. I don't draft, so I wouldn't have known that was a thing
Chris: 18:31 It's so great and I think that so many times when I've talked to business leaders that's the missing link is having the tie from to floor standpoint, back to what impact am I making on the actual company, important goal for your instance, the wig is I believe what she referred to it as. So the fact that you guys are being intentional about that, and really given that, that map now that they see that is there a visual or something like that? So do they know, "Hey, this is the wildly important goal and here's my tie to it." Is there any visual?
Ashleigh: 19:03 Yeah. So we meet as a team on a quarterly basis. And we talk about where we are tracking against our goal. And so they're reporting out to their peers on how they're doing against the goal that they chose.
Okay. So right back to accountability, actually as employee-owners, you want to make sure everybody on the teams plan and doing their best. And then it also serves as education for the other peers because they don't always know what somebody else's job is or what it entails. And so they really get to learn the whole business by hearing their peers report on how they're tracking against their goals.
I think that's such an important piece and it's not overlooked, but it's just undervalued when you're in an organization and, your tie to the employee to what's important for the company, but you also know everyone around you that just creates this unity and the culture. And so if they're reaching out, I'm imagining if they're reaching out to another department that they typically wouldn't work with, they're not going in completely cold. They know what some of that department for instance is trying to accomplish to get to overall wildly important goal achieved.
This has been fun. I'm loving it. So I'm going to shift us real quick on a topic that I love. I've learned a lot over since starting the podcast and it's around marketing. And I just think it's fascinating that when you went there within the book, you talked about the value proposition and the customer's voice, and that this is some areas that you've seen businesses miss. So curious, how do you connect those two, and do you have an influence on one versus the other more as a leader? Or are they both equally as important? Just your thoughts here.
Yeah, so I, I think that customer voice is very important and I think the value proposition has to be created from what the customer voice is. So customers their needs change over time. We think we're agile and innovative, but if we're not innovating to what they need what's the point? And if we're not serving them, then they will leave. So I think it's very important to have these conversations with the client and even try to be ahead of them assessing what they might need ahead of time for identifying some areas that in our case, we're always repairing, or they're always struggling with a furnace survey or something, how can we help them be better?
So is that, so I guess I'm hearing when you hear that piece is, so is that modifying your value prop at that point once you get that feedback?
So I think, our value proposition has remained pretty much the same over 50 years, but we're always tweaking it to meet that client for that everchanging marketplace, right?
For sure. For sure. Yeah. Ashleigh, this has been wonderful. And again we call it EECO Asks Why so we usually wrap up with the why I know we started with your why at the very beginning, but what I want to wrap up with the why too. So for our listeners out there who are interested and they want to know more, why should leaders embrace this organizational culture change? And I love the way you put it with Grit and Grace to build those great businesses of the future.
Yeah. So for me, the why is manufacturing has been known as command and control since the industrial revolution and the leaders have been tasked with thinking of every possible task for everyone in the company, but for me, that doesn't feel good. It feels better to have people create their own success and play to their own strengths. So I think we need to turn this around and take a coach approach. The other important part of this is, there's not a huge workforce. We don't have a growing population right now and manufacturers are going to have to compete with other industries for personnel. And you need to think about why somebody would come to work for you and your company and do the things that are important to you. So for me, it's all about grit, determination, resilience, and persistence, but then leading with grace as well, that empathy and compassion piece that historically we may have missed on as manufacturers.
sure. Great stuff. I love it. It's been a wonderful conversation now for our listeners that want to connect with you Ashleigh or learn more. Where's the best place that they can find you?
So LinkedIn is a great place to find me and start the conversation. And of course, you can find the book on Amazon
We will have as usual listeners in the show notes, you'll have the link to Ashleigh's LinkedIn profile as well as a direct link to Amazon to get the book. Send her a note. Let her know where it's printed at work. She's building up a big following. Hopefully, we'll have books printed in all 50 states here for too long, but Ashleigh, this has been wonderful. Thank you so much for your time for what you share with the listeners. This has been a fun conversation and we are appreciative of your time.
Thank you so much for having me.
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